Interactive fiction

Interactive fiction

Interactive fiction, often abbreviated IF, describes software simulating environments in which players use text commands to control characters and influence the environment. Works in this form can be understood as literary narratives and as computer games. In common usage, the word refers to text adventures, a type of adventure game with text-based input and output. The term is sometimes used to encompass the entirety of the medium, but is also sometimes used to distinguish games produced by the interactive fiction community from those created by games companies. It can also be used to distinguish the more modern style of such works, focusing on narrative and not necessarily falling into the adventure game genre at all, from the more traditional focus on puzzles. More expansive definitions of interactive fiction may refer to all adventure games, including wholly graphical adventures such as "Myst".

As a commercial product, interactive fiction reached its peak in popularity in the 1980s, as a dominant software product marketed for home computers. Because their text-only nature sidestepped the problem of writing for the widely divergent graphics architectures of the day, interactive fiction games were easily ported across all the popular platforms, even those such as CP/M not known for gaming or strong graphics capabilities. Today, interactive fiction no longer appears to be commercially viable, but a steady stream of new works is produced by an online interactive fiction community, using freely available development systems. Most of these games can be downloaded for free from the Interactive Fiction Archive (see external links).

The term "interactive fiction" is also occasionally used to refer to hypertext fiction, collaborative fiction, or even a participatory novel, according to the "New York Times"Fact|date=March 2008. It is also used to refer to literary works that are not read in a linear fashion, but rather the reader is given choices at different points in the text; the reader's choice determines the flow and outcome of the story. The most famous example of this form of interactive fiction is the "Choose Your Own Adventure" book series. For others, see gamebooks.


Text adventures are one of the oldest types of computer games and form a subset of the adventure genre. The player uses text input to control the game, and the game state is relayed to the player via text output.

Input is usually provided by the player in the form of simple sentences such as "get key" or "go east", which are interpreted by a parser. Parsers may vary in sophistication; the first text adventure parsers could only handle two-word sentences in the form of verb-noun pairs. Later parsers, such as those built on Infocom's ZIL (Zork Implementation Language), could understand complete sentences.DeMaria, Rusel and Wilson, Johnny L. (2002) "High Score!: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games" McGraw-Hill/Osborne, Berkeley, Calif., p. 52, ISBN 0-07-222428-2] Later parsers could handle increasing levels of complexity parsing sentences such as "open the red box with the green key then go north". This level of complexity is the standard for works of interactive fiction today.

Interactive fiction shares much in common with Multi-User Dungeons ('MUDs'). MUDs, which became popular in the mid-1980s, rely on a textual exchange and accept similar commands from players as do works of IF; however, since interactive fiction is single player, and MUDs, by definition, have multiple players, they differ enormously in gameplay styles. MUDs often focus gameplay on activities that involve communities of players, simulated political systems, in-game trading, and other gameplay mechanics that aren't possible in a single player environment.

Interactive fiction usually relies on reading from a screen and on typing input, although speech synthesis allows blind and visually impaired users to play interactive fiction.

Writing style

Interactive fiction features two distinct modes of writing: the player input and the game output.

As described above, player input is expected to be in simple command form (imperative sentences). A typical command may be:

pull lever

The responses from the game are usually written from a second-person point of view, in present tense. This is because, unlike in most works of fiction, the main character is closely associated with the player, and the events are seen to be happening as the player plays. While older text adventures often identified the protagonist with the player directly, newer games tend to have specific, well-defined protagonists with separate identities from the player. The classic essay "Crimes Against Mimesis"cite web
url =
title = Crimes Against Mimesis
accessdate = 2006-12-17
last = Giner-Sorolla
first = Roger
year = 2006
month = 4
archiveurl =
archivedate = 2005-06-19
This is a reformatted version of a set of articles originally posted to Usenet:cite web
url =
title = Crimes Against Mimesis, Part 1
accessdate = 2006-12-17
last = Giner-Sorolla
first = Roger
date= 2006-04-11
cite web
url =
title = Crimes Against Mimesis, Part 2
accessdate = 2006-12-17
last = Giner-Sorolla
first = Roger
date= 2006-04-18

cite web
url =
title = Crimes Against Mimesis, Part 3
accessdate = 2006-12-17
last = Giner-Sorolla
first = Roger
date= 2006-04-25

cite web
url =
title = Crimes Against Mimesis, Part 4
accessdate = 2006-12-17
last = Giner-Sorolla
first = Roger
date= 2006-04-29

] discusses, among other IF issues, the nature of "You" in interactive fiction.

A typical response might look something like this, the response to "look in teachest" at the start of Curses:

That was the first place you tried, hours and hours ago now, and there's nothing there but that boring old book. You pick it up anyway, bored as you are.Nelson, Graham Curses, 1993.]

Many text adventures, particularly those designed for humour (such as "Zork", "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", and "Leather Goddesses of Phobos"), address the player with an informal tone, sometimes including sarcastic remarks (see the transcript from "Curses", below, for an example).



Around 1975, Will Crowther wrote the first text adventure game, "Adventure" (originally called "ADVENT" because a filename could only be six characters long in its operating system, and later "Colossal Cave").cite web | author = Jerz, Dennis G. | date= 2004-02-17 | url = | title = Colossal Cave Adventure (c. 1975) | format = | work = | publisher = Dennis G. Jerz, Seton Hill University | accessdate = 2006-10-20 | accessyear = ] It was programmed in Fortran for the PDP-10. Stanford University graduate student Don Woods discovered "Adventure" while working at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and in 1977 obtained and expanded Crowther's source code (with Crowther's permission). Crowther's original version was an accurate simulation of the real Colossal Cave, but also included fantasy elements (such as axe-wielding dwarves and a magic bridge); Woods's changes were reminiscent of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, and included a troll, elves, and a volcano some claim is based on Mount Doom, but Woods says was not. ["Even the description of the volcano, which some writers have claimed was modelled after Mount Doom, was written with no particular vision in mind." cite web
url =
title = Interactive Fiction? I prefer Adventure
accessdate = 2007-05-22
year = 2001
month = 06
work = L’avventura è l’avventura


In early 1977, Adventure spread across ARPAnet, ["In early 1977, Adventure swept the ARPAnet." Citation
last = Anderson
first = Tim
year = 1985
date = Winter 1985
title = The History of Zork -- First in a Series
periodical = The New Zork Times
publication-date = Anderson
volume = 4
issue = 1
url =
] and has survived on the Internet to this day. The game has since been ported to many other operating systems.

The popularity of "Adventure" led to the wide success of interactive fiction during the late 1970s and the 1980s, when home computers had little, if any, graphics capability. Many elements of the original game have survived into the present, such as the command 'xyzzy', which is now included as an Easter Egg in games such as Minesweeper.

Adventure was also directly responsible for the founding of Sierra Online (later Sierra Entertainment); Ken and Roberta Williams played the game when it first appeared, and when unable to find any other games of similar quality, decided to design one of their own.Fact|date=December 2007

Commercial era

Adventure International

Adventure International was founded by Scott Adams (not to be confused with the creator of Dilbert).

In 1978, Adams wrote "Adventureland", which was loosely patterned after the original Advent. He took out a small ad in a computer magazine in order to promote and sell "Adventureland", thus creating the first commercial adventure game. In 1979 he founded Adventure International, the first commercial publisher of interactive fiction. The company went bankrupt in 1985.


The largest company producing works of interactive fiction was Infocom,cite web | author = Graham Nelson | year = 2001 | month = July | url = | title = A short history of interactive fiction | work = The Inform Designer's Manual | accessdate = 2006-11-01 ] which created the "Zork" series and many other titles, among them "Trinity", "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and "A Mind Forever Voyaging".

In June 1977, Marc Blank, Bruce K. Daniels, Tim Anderson, and Dave Lebling began writing the mainframe version of "Zork" (also known as "Dungeon"), at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science. The game was programmed in a computer language called MDL, a variant of LISP. In early 1979, the game was completed. Ten members of the MIT Dynamics Modelling Group went on to join Infocom when it was incorporated later that year.

In order to make its games as portable as possible, Infocom developed the Z-machine, a custom virtual machine which could be implemented on a large number of platforms, and which took standardized "story files" as input.

The Infocom parser was widely regarded as the best of its era. It accepted complex, complete sentence commands like "put the blue book on the writing desk" at a time when most of its competitors parsers were restricted to simple two word verb-noun combinations such as "put book". The parser was actively upgraded with new features like undo and error correction, and later games would 'understand' multiple sentence input: 'pick up the gem and put it in my bag. take the newspaper clipping out of my bag then burn it with the book of matches'.

In a non-technical sense, Infocom was responsible for developing the interactive style that would be emulated by many later interpreters. The Curses excerpt below, for example, is recognizably in the 'Infocom style'.

The company was bought by Activision in 1986 after the failure of "Cornerstone", its database software program, and stopped producing text adventures a few years later.

In 1991 and 1992, Activision released volumes one and two of "The Lost Treasures of Infocom", a collection containing most of Infocom's games, followed in 1996 by "Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces of Infocom".

Legend Entertainment

Legend Entertainment was founded by Bob Bates and Mike Verdu in 1989. It started out from the ashes of Infocom.

The text adventures produced by Legend used (high-resolution) graphics as well as sound. Some of their titles include "Eric the Unready", the "Spellcasting" series and "Gateway" (based on Frederik Pohl's novels).

The last text adventure created by Legend was "Gateway II", while the last game ever was "Unreal 2" (the well-known first-person shooter action game). Legend was acquired in 2004 by Atari.

Other companies

Probably the first commercial work of interactive fiction produced outside the U.S. was the dungeon crawl game of "Acheton", produced in Cambridge, England, and first commercially released by Acornsoft (later expanded and reissued by Topologika). Other leading companies in the U.K. were Magnetic Scrolls and Level 9 Computing. Also worthy of mention are Delta 4, Melbourne House, and the homebrew company Zenobi.

In Japan, companies such as Data West developed limited interactive fiction games, such as the seven-volume murder mystery series "Misty".cite web | author = | year = | url = | title = Misty vol.1 | language = Japanese | format = | work = FM-7 Software Museum | publisher = Oh!FM-7 | accessdate = 2006-10-20 | accessyear = ] Later, interactive fiction became more popular in Japan in the form of visual novels.

In Italy, interactive fiction games were mainly published and distributed through various magazines in included tapes. The largest number of games was published in the two magazines Viking and Explorercite web | author = | year = | url = | title = Le collane avventurose in Italia (Adventure game series in Italy) | language = Italian | format = | work = Ready64 | publisher = Roberto Nicoletti | accessdate = 2008-03-06 | accessyear = ] , with versions for the main 8-bit home computers (ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and MSX). The software house producing those games was Brainstorm Enterprise, and the most prolific IF author was Bonaventura Di Bellocite web | author = | year = | url = | title = Bonaventura Di Bello | format = | work = IFWiki | publisher = David Cornelson | accessdate = 2008-03-06 | accessyear = ] , who produced 70 games in the Italian language. The wave of interactive fiction in Italy lasted for a couple of years thanks to the various magazines promoting the genre, then faded and remains still today a topic of interest for a small group of fans and less known developers, celebrated on Web sites and in related newsgroups.

Modern era

After the demise of the commercial interactive fiction market in the 1990s, an online community eventually formed around the medium. In 1987, the Usenet newsgroup was created, and was soon followed by By custom, the topic of is interactive fiction authorship and programming, while encompasses topics related to playing interactive fiction games, such as hint requests and game reviews.

One of the most important early developments was the reverse-engineering of Infocom's Z-Code format and Z-Machine virtual machine in 1987 by a group of enthusiasts called the InfoTaskForce and the subsequent development of an interpreter for Z-Code story files. As a result, it became possible to play Infocom's work on modern computers.

For years amateurs formed a small community producing interactive fiction works of relatively limited scope using the Adventure Game Toolkit and similar tools. The breakthrough that allowed the interactive fiction community to truly prosper, however, was the creation and distribution of two sophisticated development systems. In 1987, Michael J. Roberts released TADS, a programming language designed to produce works of interactive fiction. In 1993, Graham Nelson released Inform, a programming language and set of libraries which compiled to a Z-Code story file. Each of these systems allowed anyone with sufficient time and dedication to create a game, and caused a growth boom in the online interactive fiction community.

Despite the lack of commercial support, the availability of high quality tools allowed enthusiasts of the genre to develop new high quality games. Competitions such as the annual Interactive Fiction Competition for short works, the newer Spring Thing for longer works, and the XYZZY Awards, further helped to improve the quality and complexity of the games. Modern games go much further than the original "Adventure" style, improving upon Infocom games, which relied extensively on puzzle solving, and to a lesser extent on communication with non player characters, to include experimentation with writing and story-telling techniques.

While the majority of modern interactive fiction developed is distributed for free, there are some commercial endeavors, including Peter Nepstad's "", several games by Howard Sherman published as Malinche Entertainment, and The General Coffee Company's "Future Boy!". Emily Short was commissioned to develop the game "City of Secrets" but the project fell through and she ended up releasing it herself.cite web | author = Emily Short | date= 2003-10-05 | url = | title = City of Secrets | accessdate = 2006-11-01 ] Some authors offer optional commercial "feelies" (physical props associated with a game) through [] or similar services.

Notable works

* "Colossal Cave Adventure" by Will Crowther and Don Woods was the first text adventure ever made.
* The "Zork" series by Infocom (1979- ) was the first text adventure to see widespread commercial release.
* "The Hobbit" by Philip Mitchell and Veronika Megler of Beam Software (1982) was an early reinterpretation of an existing novel into interactive fiction, with several independent non-player characters.
* "Planetfall", by Steve Meretzky of Infocom (1983), featured Floyd the robot, which Allen Varney claimed to be the first game character who evoked a strong emotional commitment from players.cite web | author = Allen Varney | date= 2005-08-23 | url = | title = Read Game | work = The Escapist, Issue #7: Classical Studies | accessdate = 2006-11-01 ]
* "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", by Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky of Infocom (1984), was notable in that the author of the original work was involved in the reinterpretation.
* "A Mind Forever Voyaging", by Steve Meretzky of Infocom (1985), the first story-heavy, puzzle-light game.
* "Amnesia", by Hugo Award and Nebula Award winning science fiction and fantasy author Thomas M. Disch (1987), the only purely text-only adventure ever published by Electronic Arts.
* "Curses", by Graham Nelson (1993), the first game ever written in the Inform programming language. Considered one of the first "modern" games to meet the high standards set by Infocom's best titles.cite web | author = Alan De Smet | date= 2006-03-14 | url = | title = Curses (Interactive Fiction Reviews) | accessdate = 2006-11-01 ]
* "So Far", by Andrew Plotkin (1996), the first XYZZY Award for Best Game winner in 1996.
* "Anchorhead", by Michael S. Gentry (1998) is a highly rated horror story inspired by H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos.Of the 1218 games rated at "Interactive Fiction Ratings", Anchorhead was the highest rated game as of November 1, 2006. (cite web | url = | title = IF Rating Stats | accessdate = 2006-11-01 )]
* "Photopia", by Adam Cadre (1998), the first almost entirely puzzle-free game. It won the annual Interactive Fiction Competition in 1998.
* "Spider and Web", by Andrew Plotkin (1998), an award-winning espionage story with many twists and turns.
* "Varicella" by Adam Cadre (1999). It won four XYZZY Awards in 1999 including the XYZZY Award for Best Game, and had a scholarly essay written about it.cite web
url =
title = Face It, Tiger, You Just Hit the Jackpot: Reading and Playing Cadre's Varicella
accessdate = 2006-12-17
year = 2003
month = 07
last = Montfort
first = Nick
coauthors = Stuart Moulthrop
authorlink = Nick Montfort
work = fineArt Forum Vol. 17 No. 8

* "Galatea", by Emily Short (2000). Galatea is focused entirely on interaction with the animated statue of the same name. Galatea has one of the most complex interaction systems for a non-player character in an interactive fiction game. Adam Cadre called Galatea "the best NPC ever".cite web
url =
title = Photopia is a short story, Varicella is a world
accessdate = 2006-12-17
year = 2002
month = 01

* "Slouching Towards Bedlam", by Star C. Foster and Daniel Ravipinto (2003). Set in a steampunk setting, the game integrates meta-game functionality (saving, restoring, restarting) into the game world itself. The game won four XYZZY Awards and held the record for the highest average score of any game in the Interactive Fiction Competition before 2006, when it was overtaken by Floatpoint. [cite web
url =
title = Results of the 9th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition
] [cite web
url =
title = Results of the 12th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition

Sample transcript

This is a brief transcript from one of many possible ways to not win the game "Curses", by Graham Nelson. The player has entered instructions on the lines beginning with '>' (shown here in italic); the rest of the text is printed by the computer. The computer begins with a printed introduction giving a little context to the game (much more would become apparent as the game progressed):

It's become a matter of pride now not to give up. That tourist map of Parismust be up here somewhere in all this clutter, even if it has been five yearssince your last trip. And it's your own fault. It looks as if yourgreat-grandfather was the last person to tidy up these lofts...
An Interactive Diversion
Copyright (c) 1993 by Graham Nelson. New players should type "help".
Release 8 / Serial number 930603 (Compiled by Inform v634)
The attics, full of low beams and awkward angles, begin here in arelatively tidy area which extends north, south and east. The woodenfloorboards seem fairly sound, just as well considering how heavy allthese teachests are. But the old wiring went years ago, and there's noelectric light.
A hinged trapdoor in the floor stands open, and light streams in from below.
You are carrying:
a chocolate biscuit
an electric torch (providing light and closed)
a crumpled piece of paper

>"read paper"
Things to do:
1. Find map
2. Phone airport to check parking
3. Health forms...
and so on. Let's face it, 1. is more enticing than the rest put together.
>"enter trapdoor"
Yes, probably just as well to give up looking, and heaven knowsthere's enough packing to do, what with the rest of the family inuproar. Oh well.
*** You have missed the point entirely ***

In that game you scored 0 out of a possible 550, in 3 turns, givingyou the rank of hapless Tourist.
Would you like to RESTART, RESTORE a saved game, give the FULL scorefor that game or QUIT?

Development systems

A number of systems are available today to write interactive fiction. Among them are ADRIFT, Inform, Hugo, and TADS. The majority of current IF development is implemented in Inform, TADS, or ADRIFT. In the 2006 IFComp, the majority of the games were written for Inform, with a strong minority of games for TADS and ADRIFT, followed by a smattering of games for other systems.cite web
url =
title = Games of the 12th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition
accessdate = 2006-12-17
year = 2006


While familiarity with a programming language leads many new authors to attempt to produce their own complete IF application, most established IF authors recommend use of a specialised IF language, arguing that such systems allow authors to avoid the technicalities of producing a full featured parser, while allowing broad community support. The choice of authoring system usually depends on the author's desired balance of ease of use versus power, and the portability of the final product.cite web
url =
title = Choosing a Text Adventure Language
accessdate = 2006-12-17
last = Granade
first = Stephen


Older development Systems
*Gilsoft's The Quill and the Professional Adventure Writer
*Incentive Software's Graphic Adventure Creator (GAC)

See also

*Interactive Fiction (IF) MUD

Related Concepts

*Hypertext fiction
*Roleplaying Games, which are occasionally described as another form of interactive fiction.
*Visual novel, interactive fiction with graphics.
*Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), which may be considered as a kind of multiplayer or collaborative interactive fiction
*Graphic adventures, adventure games with roots in interactive fiction.
*Amateur adventure game
*Interactive storytelling
*Alternate reality game, an interactive, cross-media narrative

Specific Related Fiction

*Choose Your Own Adventure
*Fighting Fantasy
*Lone Wolf (gamebooks)


Further reading

*cite book |first=Nick|last=Montfort | title=Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction | year=2005 | publisher=The MIT Press | id=ISBN 978-0-262-63318-5
* Daniel Keller, "Reading and playing: what makes interactive fiction unique" p.276-298. in Williams, J. P., & Smith, J. H. (2007). "The players' realm: studies on the culture of video games and gaming." Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co. ISBN 9780786428328

External links

* [ Interactive Fiction Database] , a community site where you can find personalized recommendations for IF games to play.
* [ SPAG] , a quarterly e-zine discussing all things IF
*dmoz|Games/Video_Games/Adventure/Text_Adventures/|Text Adventures
* [ The Interactive Fiction Archive] , a large archive of free-to-download and play interactive fiction (random mirror).
* [ Baf's Guide to the Interactive Fiction Archive] , a more user-friendly interface for the IF archive.
* [ The Interactive Fiction Wiki] , a MediaWiki wiki specific to Interactive Fiction.
* [,27/ Something about Interactive Fiction] - MobyGames examines the history (and future) of this gaming genre.
* [ A Brief History of Interactive Fiction] , a timeline of events in interactive fiction history at the Brass Lantern website.
* [ Interactive Fiction: More Than Retro Fun] , a beginners introduction and setup guide to Interactive Fiction games and interpreters
* [ Web-adventures] , an online z-machine interpreter
* [ IFReviews Organization] , huge repository for text adventure game reviews written and rated by Interactive Fiction community players and members.

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